Good sleep is a questionable endeavor these days. It is understandable, given the pandemic, with the lockdowns and quarantines, and its associated fears and anxieties. Drinking is up, exercise is down, and anger and frustration are often at the forefront of my brain. Add to that the raw polarization of our society today, and it is altogether far too wearying, but not in a way that helps sleep.
It is, quite honestly, hard to fight it all. There is a reason that Monday seems like Tuesday, which seems like last Thursday, or Sunday. I can’t — and don’t care to — remember what happened then.
One recent night, during a bout of insomnia, I was hit with a stark thought. Actually, it was really more of a command:
“Get your mind working again.”
I thought about this for an hour or so, mulling the contours of the phrase. I know what “get your mind working” literally means, but the path wasn’t evident to me. I have things to do, projects that I’m working on, and I’m struggling to get them done. It’s all the other crap that’s getting in the way, making those things more difficult to accomplish.
A day later, in a little bit of serendipity, I read an interview with Jerry Seinfeld in the New York Times. It was an interesting read, but I was struck immediately by what he said when asked about how he’s working through isolation:
I have just returned from a tour of the deserts of the Southwest: Death Valley, Palm Desert, Joshua Tree, and the Valley of Fire. It was good for Susan and me to be down that way: the desert nourishes us, especially in the late winter and early spring. I also received a lovely gift during our trip: the welcome return of the photographic spirit, which had been largely absent for me last year.
Today, as I was editing some photos from the trip, I learned that an old friend, Richard Wanderman, passed away earlier this month while I was largely incommunicado. I had known that he was seriously ill, and that his illness was most likely terminal, but I had hoped that he might make a bit of a recovery. He was often on my mind during my travels, but I wasn’t online enough to check about his condition.
I’ve known Richard in one way or another since the 1980s: he was a subscriber to my newsletter MacInTouch (which I published with my friend Ric), although our interactions were largely at trade shows. After a number of years in the ‘90s where we had minimal contact, Richard reconnected with me on Flickr. Since that time, we have had a wonderful ongoing photographic discussion, with the occasional detour into personal topics. Richard was one of the people who commented regularly on my essays and photographs, and he had deeply felt words of encouragement and care for me during Lee’s illness and after her death. I valued our connection, even if it was electronic and occasional.
It was as beautiful a summer morning as Portland can bring: sunny and warm, with a slight breeze and that low humidity that makes the days (and nights) so comfortable. With the sunshine filling our room, the birds singing, and the sounds of the waking city drifting in through the window, we lingered over this last familiar, comfortable, and loving moment between the two of us.
Lee and I had slept in the same bed together for the first time in months. The year before, when her illness had made it difficult for either of us to get a good night’s sleep, we set up a small, comfortable bed for Lee in Liz’s old room on the first floor. It was an arrangement constructed out of pain, and it reluctantly worked for both of us, but the previous night it just made sense to be together. Thankfully, we had slept deeply and woke up refreshed, which, as I think about it today, was not wholly unexpected.
So much of the previous year had been each of us trying not to dwell on an event—mundane or great—as being the “last” of something, but on this day, this sad and beautiful Friday, we had finally reached the end of that game. Lee had her last cup of decaf espresso, a last piece of toast with homemade jam, and her last morning cocktail of morphine and assorted medications. Most of Lee’s friends had already said goodbye, either explicitly or implicitly, so it was just the kids and us for most of that day.
My friend Tom passed away recently. He was a professional friend more than a personal one, but he was a friend nonetheless. We knew each other for more than 25 years, and he was an important part of my working world at the time when I was getting my bearings in publishing. We spoke occasionally at the yearly Macworld Expo conferences in the ’90s and beyond, but most of our exchanges were over email (often about a product review he wrote for us). Every time I met Tom or his wife Dori, however, there was a warmth among us that I can only describe as camaraderie and friendship.
I can’t eulogize him to the degree that my friends Andy, Jason and Jeff did, but I can say that he was one of the best writers who ever wrote for me: his prose was clear and clean, and he knew about deadlines better than most (being a well-regarded book author helped with that). Beyond that, I can only say that he was a good man as I knew him, and I’ve always been grateful for the work he did for me, as well as the books he wrote, many of which helped me learn new things long after we stopped working together.
Last September, I had the good fortune to have the best office in the world: the Alvord Desert.[1. Over on our blog, you can see “One Last Jaunt through Oregon,” a travelogue of our awesome September trip. My office in each of the places we went was wonderful.] Each morning, I got up, made a cup of coffee, and set out my desk and chair with a stack of proofs. There, with an expansive view of the desert playa and Steens Mountain, I worked on a book, the result of an unexpected project that had come together earlier in the year.
The book was not mine, but that of a friend. And, as I worked on the project through the fall and winter, I realized that this was not a one-off event, but possibly the beginning of a new chapter in my life. To that end, I have created a publishing company, Red Notebook Press, and am about to publish its first book.
That book, Aging: An Apprenticeship, is, at its simplest, an anthology of thoughtful, touching, and sometimes funny essays on life as we get older, written by many well-known—and should-be-well-known—authors. Compiled and edited by my friend Nan Narboe, it is a unique book, an important one, and I’m honored to have been a part of it.
“Nan Narboe’s thoughtfully selected essays offer an intimate and lyrical account of aging through the decades. Authors Judy Blume, Andrew McCarthy, Gloria Steinem and others draw from their own experiences, describing a specific decade’s losses and gains to form a complex and unflinching portrait of the years from nearing fifty to ninety and beyond.”
Aging is now complete, and will be published on April 4. There were a few hiccups along the way (the biggest being the nightmare that is building an ebook), but I can tell you that nothing beat the joy at seeing the first copies in Nan’s hands, or finally getting the book visible on Amazon.
I have been in publishing my entire life, but it has been in the world of periodicals. And, while I have never tried to create a book, book publishing is something I’ve had in the back of my mind for years. In fact, part of the happenstance that led me to this project was that I was already knee-deep in research on another potential book publishing project when I ran into Nan. I had done enough investigation about print-on-demand services, creating ebooks, and marketing channels that I knew I could help Nan with two things: guide her book to completion, and create a printed book that looked professionally done. I can honestly say that I have done just that.
As I noted a year ago, 2016 was a year to explore my new world with Susan, and to determine the path forward for my life. I expected to read and write quite a bit, possibly with an eye towards beginning a book of my own, but in the end, I did very little writing. When Nan and I spoke about publishing her book in June, I was in a place of deep dissatisfaction, mostly about my lack of writing, but also because I felt that I had not gotten any sense of where I was headed. I was enjoying our travels, but I felt more like a tourist than someone searching for a new purpose.
Aging was the perfect antidote. In the process of ramping up production on the book, I remembered how much fun it is to manage a big project, work with good people, play with page layout, edit and proof (yes![2. One of the true joys of the project was getting to use the Chicago Manual of Style once again — their website is amazing, and well worth the subscription, if you’re an editor.]), and produce something of true worth.
About Red Notebook
I called my imprint Red Notebook Press for a very specific reason, one that is dear to me. I’m not ready to say much more than this: the red notebook was one of the last gifts to me from Lee. It was an amazing document that has changed the way I think about death and how we prepare for it. I will write about it one day, possibly even as a book, but when I thought about the types of books I would like to publish, Red Notebook Press was the only name I ever considered using.
I’ve been asked by more than a few friends about what I hope to publish at Red Notebook. I’m not particularly interested in publishing fiction, poetry or general-purpose nonfiction. I would like to help authors publish thoughtful, literate texts about living well, especially as we get older; explorations of how we choose to die, and how we can help people die on their own terms; and how to live within the world of grief, with peace and grace. Right now, I don’t have any concrete plans, but I think of one of Susan’s great sayings: “Don’t get attached to outcomes; just remain open to the possibilities.” For me, Aging is a perfect example of that philosophy. I am hopeful that, if there are to be other books, they will unfold as they need to happen.
Over the past few weeks, I have been wrapping up this project. Nan has a good publicist and we’re hopeful that we’ll get a review or two from press outlets to help get the word out.[3. Not to get all marketing on y’all, but anything you can do to help put the book out there would be appreciated. I truly believe this is an important book, but it is also one of hundreds of thousands of books published in the U.S. each year, and it is easy for it to get lost. If you have any ideas, get in touch with me at rlepage(at)me.com.] In the meantime, I am preparing to head back out on the road for the foreseeable future; our house is packed up and in storage, and we’re readying our new trailer for four to six months through the Southwest and beyond. While I’m out, I’ll be working on books for that other project I referred to above. Again, I’m being a bit vague about this for various reasons, but I have created a second imprint for a different topic, and hope to have news about that later this year.[4.I should also have an online presence for Red Notebook Press in the next month or so, at rednotebook.press.]
So, that’s what I did during my summer (and fall and winter) vacation. I’m extremely proud of what Nan has created, as much as I am at being able to help her realize her vision, and I look forward to the things that this year will bring.
Grief never really goes away. It lessens over time, receding into the shadows of your consciousness, but it will always be present. You can never let it go completely.
You might think that it can be tamed, this grief, but it cannot; it has burrowed and become a spirit inside of you, one that demands to be part of you for as long as you draw a breath. And you feel that this state of affairs is the correct one; after all, you don’t want to forget that which made you grieve. That would be a rejection of the life you had before grief came calling.
January 2016 marks a big change for me: I am jobless for the first time in more than a decade, but I am not looking for work. Instead, I am preparing for a voyage of uncertain exploration, and I’m unbelievably excited about it all.
The short story is this: last fall, Susan and I purchased a small travel trailer,[1. A 17-foot, very cozy fiberglass trailer made by Casita. We love it.] and our hope is to spend much of this year wandering throughout America (and possibly parts of Canada). My goal for our travels is simple: to photograph the beauty that surrounds us, and to write about some of the things that have been rolling around in my head for the past few years.
Ten months ago, almost to the day, my wife passed away peacefully at home. This morning, I walked out of that home for the last time.
This was the place that Lee and I always dreamed we would build, one packed to the rafters with love and the happy minutiae of a life together. And it became just that, the foundation for the best parts of our lives together. It is where our children grew up and grew out, and where we put down roots in a community that felt absolutely right for each of us.
Of all the houses that I have lived, this was the one that I truly called home. A small part of me wanted to be in this place forever, if only to celebrate that time and preserve it for my children. But I also know that I cannot live in the service of the past, and that’s mostly what it would be.
Today’s leaving was as immeasurably sad as anything I have experienced in the past year; a sadness that came from deep inside me, from the bedrock upon which I am built. And yet, it was also freeing, as though another small weight had been lifted from my soul.
And as I walked through the rooms of the house, I smiled for the wonderful memories buried in those walls and shed some tears for the things that never were to be. And I stood in front of the beautiful gardens that Lee created and cherished, and wished the plants to stay strong and vibrant for the family that is entering this place.
There are good bones in this house, and the land beneath it breathes with an air of contentment that comes from the lives that inhabited this space. It is time for this place to bloom again, with laughter and love at its center. And it is time for me to leave, to move further into this new world that I am creating. Yes, there is sadness in leaving, but there is also much joy and love in my life. It is that which continues to propel me forward.
Amidst the tumult of my new life, I have encountered a number of heartfelt moments that have brought me inordinate pleasure and great hope for the future. I have professed surprise at the constancy with which these small pieces of joy pop up, but a dear friend finally convinced me that this is due in part to who I am and the way that my life was meant to be right now.
What is truly surprising to me is that I have also discovered love.
I was not looking for it, but like much else that has happened to me recently, I have come to embrace it wholly, without expectations. It is enlivening, it is great, and it has contributed mightily to the fearlessness that is the bedrock of this new world I inhabit.
A beautiful, caring woman walked into my life when I was hovering near the lowest point of my grief. We met in line at a coffee shop, and struck up a short conversation about books (I had the wonderful novel, The Art of Fielding, which I had just finished, with me) while waiting for our coffee to come. There was no ‘bolt out of the blue,’ no incandescent flame that sprang from some depths inside us. Instead, there was an honesty to our connection that was refreshing, direct and familiar, and it felt comfortable enough for each of us to continue our conversation. I ended up giving her my book, and we swapped email addresses and went our separate ways for the day.
Susan and I corresponded for more than a month after our initial contact, mostly talking about how we had each come to the current places in our respective worlds. For someone unmoored by death and craving normalcy, this conversation was like the North Star to me, a familiar piece of the night sky that always returned my bearings, no matter how adrift I felt.
Susan’s kindnesses and compassion in dealing with my loss were tender and true, and, through our correspondence, we developed a close friendship. When we met again for coffee in late September — I called it a ‘practice date,’ much to the bemusement of the few who knew about it — it was as if we were two old friends catching up after some time away.
Through the fall, Susan and I spent more time apart than together, continuing our rich conversation while living our own lives. And each time we were together, there was a level of comfort that encouraged us and ultimately fed a spark that grew into a warm blaze by the time we headed into the holidays.
During this time, I had the occasional (and understandable), “What am I doing?” thoughts, but a few close friends — and Susan — kept me grounded. In the end, I chose to let my heart be my guide, and I am glad for it.
If that were all I told you about this — and there is so much more that I could say about this remarkable woman — it would still be the lovely story that it is. But Susan has also returned something so precious to me that I still can’t fathom it, something that I thought I had left by the side of the road years ago: the desire to write.
In a world where I have been given great gifts of beauty and love, I cannot tell you how special this inspiration has been. The pieces I have written here, and the ones I have yet to publish, have had their start in the conversations between Susan and I. And the words have flowed with an energy and care that is greater than the sum of all the writing I have done in my life to this point. It is so different that I feel as though I have been reborn as a writer.
And, much like finding love, I am surprised by something deeper: I am writing poetry again. Since it started in October, poetry has tumbled out of me in torrents. At first, I resisted, believing it to be a wasted exercise, especially in the context of the prose I felt I had to write, but I have since come to understand that the poet is at the core of who I am, and it is time for him to return.
I consciously stopped writing poetry 30 years ago because I felt I was incapable of writing anything of real beauty. When asked about it, I would say that I chose instead to live life as a poem. But now, as I survey the world that was, and the world that could be, I am emboldened by it all over again. I see beauty everywhere, and I want to commit great acts of beauty myself, in words and actions.
I know that this might all seem crazy to some, but it is not to me. As I look back over the past few months, I feel as though I have emerged strong, confident and upright from the ashes of my loving old world. I am carrying a pack with my dearest possessions and memories from that place — it doesn’t need to be much more than that — and have turned onto a road that is full of life, adventure and now, love.
When I pause to reflect on that, I am humbled and awestruck by the majesty of it all.
I did not look for love, but I cannot tell you how much joy I have in my heart because of it. As Susan and I have remarked to each other on more than one occasion, life is wondrous and beautiful.
For the past few weeks, I have been unbelievably happy.
I went through a particularly bad stretch of sadness and grief in late August, which lingered into early September. But on a pretty autumn day mid-month, a switch literally went off in my head, and I was happy. It was so sudden, so swift and so powerful that I literally remember thinking, “This is what it must feel like to be bipolar.”
What has been unexpected is that it has largely remained that way ever since that day.
I have been reluctant to share this widely because it is a feeling that seems so much at odds with that of a “man who has just lost his Beloved,” as one dear friend so kindly put it to me. A few other close friends have noticed and been drawn into my upbeat little world; to them it is good to see me so buoyant after years and months of hardship, sorrow and loss. But it still seemed wrong to me, and I struggled to understand why I would feel such joy with so little guilt.
After a great deal of thought and consideration, I have come to embrace this special state of grace. For that’s what it is, and I am entirely at peace with it.
My wife is gone. There is nothing in this world that will bring her back to me, and no amount of magical thinking will change this.
For the two months immediately following Lee’s death, I felt as though I were living on a plain outside the entrance to a long tunnel. That place was cold, wet and lonely, and, although I knew that there was no hope of Lee ever returning home, I was compelled to grieve for her in that place. It was the last bit of duty I truly owed to Lee, and the sadness and despair that hung over me was as necessary to me as gravity.
Then came the happiness. And with the happiness came a surge of confidence that was both invigorating and terrifying. I resisted these emotions at first, but in the end, I took my hands off the wheel and let them drive. In truth, I was exhausted from eight years of cancer, pain and caretaking, and tired of the grief that had been building up like plaque on my soul.
And so, I turned back on the road home again, away from the place of my mourning. It was a comfort unlike any I had felt in ages.
I truly enjoyed the initial stages of this sustained energy, but I was also disturbed by it. It occupied my mind for quite a while, without any resolution. But, in the middle of an email conversation with a friend, she made me realize that what I was feeling was honest, and it was based entirely on love.
Pondering her words, I came to understand that I have carefully been placed on the road that I should be traveling.
I refused to characterize it as such while living amidst it, but Lee and I walked together through hell, knowing all the while how our story would end. For more than three years, we counted out time, embracing tiny moments of love and tenderness amidst a river of sorrow and pain. And while it is easy for me to look at our last years together solely as the two of us trying to provide comfort and care to each other on the slow glide path to death, I now know that we were also preparing me for life. But I truly was so focused on helping Lee live in our diminishing world that I wasn’t paying attention to her kindnesses.
She and I spoke quite frequently about my life ‘after.’ I resisted as much as I could, but Lee persisted. We ended up joking about it: after Lee died, Famous Beautiful Actress would magically find and fall in love with me, and all would be right with the world. (Then FBA got married, and that was that; I don’t want to break up a home.) I now look back on many of our conversations, and I have a much richer sense of how much Lee wanted me to know that it was ok to be happy, to fall in love again, and to move on. It was a gift that I did not fully discover until after she departed, and it is the foundation of the grace that is woven so tightly into my life at this moment.
This perspective also helps me understand why I don’t need to worry about joy and guilt: it means nothing to the presence of Lee in my heart, which will always reside in a safe place. If anything, the honesty with which we both dealt with our love and her death tightens the bond that keeps those walls strong.
Kindness has truly been the sustenance of the grieving process for me. It has nourished and warmed me, regardless of where I lived in relation to the tides. Close friends have provided so much love that I struggle to comprehend the enormity of it all. I have had people previously unknown open their hearts and give up a little part of their life to help me carry on. There are friends I haven’t seen or spoken with in decades who have reached out with simple and profound messages of love, hope and care. My families, dealing with their own crushing losses, have still taken the time to keep me in their thoughts. I will never adequately be able to thank everyone who has reached out to me, but do want them to know that they have all contributed to this place that I’m at in this world right now.
Since the arrival of joy, the sadness has poked back at me at times, but I am much better at recognizing the movements of the tides. My newly resurgent confidence lets me rise defiantly above the water and send an empty boat back out to sea. And each time this happens, I let a little bit more of Lee go, which she — and I, despite my reluctance — recognized long ago as something that had to happen for me to be able to move on in the world without her. It is a kindness that I can only repay by continuing to move along this new road with integrity and love.